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Atletico puts end to Fulham's dream run
Two goals from Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan, the winner coming deep into added time, broke hearts in London tonight, while assuring Madrid of at least one trophy this season.
The long Europa League journey ends with a jubilant trophy for Spanish side Atletico Madrid.
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It was the first major title for Atletico in 14 years and the first continental piece of silver since they won the old UEFA-CONMEBOL exhibition trophy in 1974. The win cemented a remarkable turnaround of fortune under new manager Quique Sánchez Flores, who inherited a team in disarray after Abel Resino’s disastrous tenure at the club.
But it was a sad night again for Fulham, which has never won a top-level trophy in their 131 years of existence.
Under manager Roy Hodgson, they had enjoyed a remarkable run through the competition, eliminating defending champions Shakhtar Donetsk, Italian giants Juventus, and two top German sides, Wolfsburg and Hamburg.
But it ended bitterly tonight in an encounter with a team that had just scraped into the tournament; Atletico barely pipped Cypriot side APOEL to snag the Europa League slot after a disastrous Champions League run.
Tonight, Atletico looked the better of the two teams, with wingback Tomas Ujfalusi feeding the strike tandem of Sergio Aguero and Forlan early and often, while Paulo Assuncao and Raul Garcia easily controlled the midfield. Atletico were sharper on attack, more difficult to dispossess, and clearly the more creative of the two teams.
For while Fulham assumed a defense-first posture, Atletico was able to run four men at a time at Mark Schwarzer’s goal, a wave that ultimately swamped the Cottagers.
And, Dempsey made history tonight, becoming the first U.S. player to feature in a major European final when he replaced Bobby Zamora in the 55th minute. After a bright start, a lack of service and increasingly harsh conditions limited his effectiveness (in a quirk, another U.S.-born player was on the pitch - Fulham’s Brede Hangeland was born in Houston to Norwegian parents working in the oil industry, however, Hangeland has not lived in America since he was a baby, and is a Norwegian international).
The Europa League was intended to reintroduce an historic — if second-tier — European competition widely felt to have fallen on hard times. To UEFA’s credit, the presentation was top-notch, with the scruffiness of recent years past replaced by the same kind of glamour associated with the Champions League.
In America, the League got a bit of a boost with a novel arrangement with satellite provider DirecTV providing wall-to-wall coverage of the tournament, something that the old UEFA Cup never saw on these shores.
But it’s hard to say that UEFA’s efforts have reversed the Cup’s decline. The Champions League is so wildly successful at drawing both attention and money, that the Europa League looks less than second best. And despite the late drama of the tournament, and the truly wonderful story of tiny Fulham’s drive to the final, it’s hard not the feel that without such a feel-good tale, the Europa League final would have been just as much of an afterthought this season as in years past.
Some would say this is sad, and wax nostalgic about the UEFA Cup’s past glories. That’s too easy, and it’s false to boot. The truth is that fans no longer have much patience for second-tier competitions as a rule, and as the lines grow sharper and brighter between the haves and have-not of the footballing world, there will come a time when some of these tournaments will evaporate altogether.
UEFA and its Europa League are trying to stave that off, but it seems inevitable in a modern football world where the best players are being asked too often. Fans are voting with their eyes and wallets, and while tonight’s finale was wonderful for the clubs and fans involved, there’s little doubt that the big game is in ten day’s time.
While crosstown rivals Real Madrid are staring at the possibility of losing the league to arch-tivals Barcelona, Atletico can add to its title haul next week, as they face Sevilla in the final of the Copa Del Rey.
Fulham, however, are out of chances. They finished their season Sunday with a 4-0 loss to Arsenal, in 12th place in the English Premier League.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the Champions League and European football.